The first small steps toward progress arrived in Benton Harbor, Mich., as replacements of lead contaminated water lines is now underway. Much to the relief of frustrated and concerned residents of the small majority Black city and its dedicated mayor Marcus Muhammad, there is now movement in the goal of replacing all impacted pipes within the next 18 months.
It’s an aggressive timeline, but Mayor Muhammad is determined to work with and keep pressure on city, state and federal officials and partner with agencies, to ensure his hometown has clean and safe drinking water. The mayor, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and Congressman Fred Upton, a Republican whose 6th District includes Benton Harbor, were on site Nov. 8 and Nov. 9 as the first pipes were replaced by a local Black-owned construction company tasked with working on the first 100 homes and filling 300 potholes around the city.
The company will also identify the next 360 residential homes that need lines replaced, said Mayor Muhammad. There are approximately 2,800 lead service lines in the ground, “but we know there’s more,” he said.
Benton Harbor has been in a water crisis since 2018 when elevated levels of lead was reported in its water supply, resulting from contaminated pipes. Residents have had to rely on bottled water. Since then, Mayor Muhammad has spent countless hours tirelessly working to fix the problem. (See Final Call 41-6) He is also focused on trying not to pass along costs to Benton Harbor’s most vulnerable residents.
“We’re partnering with the state and the Whitmer administration for low-income residents who would qualify, their plumbing lines would be at no charge. So not only will we be able to do the curb or sidewalk to the house, but we’d also be able for low-income residents to do all of the pipes and fixtures inside of the home,” said Mayor Muhammad.
“This is extraordinary in scope. Because initially prior to 2018 everything was on the homeowner but now with the law changing and with the attention and the national spotlight, an abundance of resources—which is a long time coming—are being sent to the city of Benton Harbor. So I’m grateful and it’s a very unique situation because I can’t say that every city after us will receive this kind of funding and assistance.”
The state law he referenced was enacted by former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder which placed the responsibility of replacing lead lines on individual municipalities which for poor communities like Benton Harbor, where over 45 percent of the population lives in poverty and just came out of state receivership in 2017 due to a budget deficit—is an added burden and hardship they just cannot afford.
The estimated cost to replace 100 percent of lead service lines in Benton Harbor is $30 million to $35 million. The state of Michigan said it has so far delivered $18.6 million with $10 million in the recently signed Fiscal Year 2022 budget, $3 million from the Michigan Clean Water plan, and a $5.6 million Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the governor’s office, with $18.6 million out of $30 million appropriated to date, Benton Harbor still needs at least $11.4 million to replace all the impacted lines by the 18-month target. Gov. Whitmer called on the Republican-controlled legislature to secure the remaining funding by utilizing the billions in federal funding available to Michigan under the American Rescue Plan. Gov. Whitmer also announced there will be funding available for eligible low-income residents to wipe out the past due water bills.
“I have been actively using the bully pulpit to solicit funds. I spoke directly to Congressman Upton and said that we need funding. We’re going to need support from the federal government to fulfill the new mandate because we can’t raise water rates and pay for it. We already have the highest water rates in this area,” said Mayor Muhammad.
He appreciates the efforts of Rep. Upton and Gov. Whitmer.
The city’s water crisis is one of several challenges it faces due to years of problems like crumbling infrastructure and economic woes. “Benton Harbor on one hand is a case study because we will be the example of how urban cities or urban communities are rebuilding because it’s going to take federal, state, local dollars to rebuild the wasted cities,” said the 46-year-old Muslim who is a husband and father.
For low-income residents to find out if they are eligible for relief on their water bill, Mayor Muhammad’s office is providing a list of all water customers to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The agency will be able to cross-reference that information with their system to determine eligibility and residents should be credited on their water bills starting sometime in December, the mayor said.
“Residents can contact City Hall, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services or Berrien County Department of Health and Human Services and give their information, fill out the application and see if they qualify,” he said.
There will also be an educational campaign including some door-to-door information sharing with residents.
“They will be moving forward a plethora of resources that will come in to help the residents and help the community,” explained Mr. Muhammad. “As the mayor of this city, I want to make sure that it’s managed and that every dime, penny and nickel lands or is allocated where it’s supposed to be and the residents are served.”